Title: City of Stairs
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Blurb: The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.
Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.
Admittedly, this was a reread for me, and I liked the book the first time around, so it was no surprise that I liked it this time as well. However, I didn’t write a review for this book the last time I read it, and I felt the need to rectify that situation—because this is a very good book, and it deserves to be praised by more than a four-star rating on Goodreads.
Recently, I really enjoyed reading Bennett’s latest release, Foundryside. But reading that reminded me that I never finished reading the Divine Cities trilogy, even though I liked book one. Unfortunately, it had been so long since I read City of Stairs the first time that my memory of the plot was kinda fuzzy. Therefore, I felt I needed to revisit this before I moved on to the sequels.
I’m extremely glad I made that decision, because I had forgotten that Bennett never goes light on the world-building. The world of the Divine Cities is extremely rich with interesting details, and it makes the story feel authentic in a way that shines above many other fantasy novels. I never get tired of reading tangents and asides about Bulikov and its history because all those details feed into the reader’s understanding of the greater plot in a variety of insightful ways.
On top of the world-building, the cast of the novel is excellent. Shara is a likable and intelligent protagonist whose strengths and shortcomings are believable from beginning to end, and whose development goes hand in hand with the development of the overarching plot. Sigrud, while acting as the “muscle” for the rather petite Shara, is also a well-rounded character with a rich backstory who I would very much like to see more in the sequels. And the supporting characters, while not having but so much “screen time,” are all expertly fleshed out via their behavior—or in the case of Mulaghesh, their manner of speaking.
Probably my only criticism of the book is that the plot is a tad slow to pick up, and then everything happens all at once in a grand cascade in the third act. However, this structure is not unique to Bennett’s writing and is in fact a fairly popular style in some sub-genres of fantasy, so I’m not going to overly criticize Bennett for following the example of other fantasy authors. Also, despite the slow pacing at the beginning, the world-building is so interesting to read about on its own that in many places you don’t even notice the plot isn’t chugging full speed ahead.
Overall, I had a lot fun rereading this book, with its expertly crafted world and solid cast of characters. And I’m very much looking forward to finally reading book two, City of Blades, in the near future.